Reading Matters

Morgan back with 18-year-old runaway slave from S.C.

Robert Morgan
Robert Morgan Poetry Foundation

You’re going to love Jonah Williams, the star of Robert Morgan’s latest novel, “Chasing the North Star.” He’s an 18-year-old slave who, in 1850, flees the S.C. plantation where earlier that day he’d been lashed for concealing two books.

So by the crust of a moon, Jonah slips out of the cabin where his family sleeps. No shoes. No map. Just a stolen hat and kitchen knife. And he’s off for the North, hoping to reach the N.C. mountains by daylight.

Morgan, a Hendersonville native who teaches at Cornell University, tells me he’d always wanted to write something about slavery and southern Appalachia.

“My great-great grandparents had taken in a runaway boy named Willie, who had been injured,” says Morgan. “For safety, they pretended they had bought him. Willie was killed by a falling tree while they were cutting timber.”

Morgan says it was scary to think of writing from the point of view of a young African-American.

“As scary as when I first wrote from the point of view of a woman character,” he says. “But that’s what fiction is all about, isn’t it? Reaching across boundaries – boundaries of gender, race, ethnicity, religion, geography, time.”

Morgan will give a free reading and talk 7-8 p.m. Monday at Park Road Books.